January 16, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   0 Comment

The interior of a C-130 Hercules transport looks like a well-lit section of a subway tunnel to which, on the outside, wings have been attached.  Luggage and boxes of supplies were piled up and tied down aft.  The main area of the flight cabin was divided in half lengthwise.  Twenty-four people were seated in each half, 12 passengers facing 12 passengers.  Our group was seated along the starboard half, cramped but happy.  A large contingent of Koreans were seated on the port side.  Cables ran lengthwise above our head, which you could grab for support if you wanted to undo your seat beat and could squiggle to a standing position.  I imagine paratroopers used the cable to hook up their jump cords.

The plane was painted camo green and along the exterior ran the words: Fuerza Aereal Uruguayo.  We arrived at the airport at around 11:30 AM, our second trip of the day.  The flight was originally scheduled for 8 AM, with our wake-up call at 5 AM.  Vans came for our luggage by 6, and a bus came for us.  But when we got to the airport, we were told that weather conditions on King George Island were as yet unfavorable for a takeoff from Punta Arenas.  Back to the hostal we went, wondering…

Those of us whose rooms were still available could take a nap.  I awoke at 11:00, walked into the dining room and looked questioningly at Vladmir.  “No noos,” he said.  Chris wandered in asking who wanted to order pizza.  Suddenly our Spanish-speaking companion, Francisco Fernandoy, who grew up in Punta Arenas and is studying for a PhD in Germany, appeared.  “They’re coming for us now,” he said.

We had the luggage lined up outside in minutes.

The noise of the 4 propellers prohibited conversation during the flight, one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced.  After 2 or 2 and a half hours in the air, you could suddenly sense the plane begin to descend.  We smiled at one another.  Turning to the window (that is, porthole) over my right shoulder, I could see a mound of whiteness.  Our destination.

Like the Arctic, the Antarctic—at least, its northern tip—has a pinto texture in summer, a sweep of low, undulating elevations, dark and dappled with snow.  The Bellingshausen Station occupies a coastal stretch of muddy, snowy ground riddled with tractor tracks and surrounded on three sides by this unique landscape, generally called broken tableland.  The fourth side is the water, where a small contingent of Emperor penguins stood about attending to penguin business.  The station is a large compound with numerous buildings, some close together, others far apart.  It amazingly resembles Little America, the Byrd compound erected in the 20s on the other side of the continent.  There is an admin building; a mess hall; a generator room; a recreation building with pool and ping-pong tables, a library and a film library; a chapel on a hill; and small dorm buildings.  Our accommodations are on a steep hill near the chapel and a good climb up from the admin building.  The buildings are all painted orange—a color Byrd selected after serious investigation of the most visible hue against a white background.

The major differences with Little America is that Byrd and his people built their compound from scratch and they built it underground to take advantage of the insulating properties of snow.  The Bellingshausen buildings are clean, comfortable, well-heated and pleasant inside.  Modern scientific exploration has its disadvantages along with the advantages.  To go to the glacier, permission has to be obtained from the Chileans.  The Chileans require American scientists to secure a license from the US Government to bring samples back to the US from Antarctica and through Chile.  Ning applied for his license, but it’s still in process.  Fortunately, Les Werner expects an e-mail any minute now granting him his license.  The Chileans would be satisfied to see any American permit in place.

I’m partial to the old school of exploration.  The Russians are extremely accommodating and helpful.  In fact, a welcoming party is in progress as I write.  Soft music on the guitar is being played by Irina, who turns out to be a Russian Judy Collins.  The station people have a schedule of activities planned for us, a proposition I find less than thrilling.

Still I’m delighted to be back in a land where I can scoop up a handful of snow that has the texture of sticky pellets.  The temperature was in the 40s when we landed.  Last night, I’m told, it dipped to 26 degrees.  A misty overcast lies above the outlying slopes.  They say a scientist working on the coast somewhere had to rescued a day or so ago when King George was struck with a 50 mile-an-hour wind.

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

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